Continuing activity of pandemic H1N1 influenza in the Southeast, particularly in Georgia, is raising fears of a third wave of swine flu cases, federal officials said Monday. They urged people to continue getting vaccinated as a preventive measure in case a new outbreak occurred.
Although H1N1 flu activity is still low in most of the country, flu-related hospitalizations in Georgia have, since the beginning of February, been higher than they were in October at the height of the second wave of the flu, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
A CDC team was sent March 6 to assist state officials investigating the outbreak, but its members have found nothing unusual.
"There is no evidence the virus has changed in Georgia," she said.
Alabama and South Carolina are also reporting regional activity of the virus, and some unusual activity has been noted in Hawaii and New Mexico.
The Southeast is where the second wave of the pandemic began last fall, but experts generally attributed that to the earlier start of school in the region.
Researchers had previously hoped that the continued low activity of swine flu meant that a third wave was less likely than had previously been expected, but Schuchat called the new data from the Southeast a "worrisome trend. . . . The future is hard to predict because there is much we do not know. But we do know that the virus is still around."
Swine flu has infected about 60 million Americans, hospitalizing 265,000 and killing 12,000.
Although a normal flu season is usually associated with nearly three times that number of deaths, officials are concerned about the ages of victims.
Seasonal flu normally kills mostly the elderly, but swine flu is killing adults under the age of 65, particularly those who have underlying health conditions or who are pregnant. The death rate among adults younger than 65 "is five times higher than what we typically see with seasonal flu," Schuchat said.
At least 35 million doses of swine flu vaccine are available, and Schuchat and Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin urged everyone, especially those with underlying health issues, to get vaccinated.